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St. Helena ~ Napa Valley (AVA)

David Fulton Winery: A will to make wine

It took the passing of an elderly aunt to reconnect Fulton Mather with his family’s history of winemaking in St Helena.

by Alan Goldfarb
August 25, 2005

On the day 10 years ago, when Fulton Mather sat down to hear his aunt Gladys’ executor read her will, he had no idea that he was about to get into the wine business. But when he learned that at 61 years of age, poof, he was a vintner, how did he react?

He didn’t get excited as one might expect, because he says, “I don’t get that excited and I don’t get emotional in pressure situations.”

Nonetheless, nearing retirement from the state department of social services, Mather suddenly found himself with a hole-in-the-ground created in 1973 when his great-grandfather David Fulton’s wine cellar, dating from 1860, was demolished. As well as a small Victorian house that was built four years later, and some adjacent vineyards.

That must have made you stand up and take notice?

“When we realized we were going to take this over, I decided real quickly that I’d better learn how to make wine,” he says on a mid-July scorcher of a day. “I never thought I’d inherit it. I thought my aunt would leave it to her son.”

Thus, he did the next best thing in light of the fact that he was handed a very ripe lemon, and when given a lemon …

After all, wine was in Mather’s personal history. His great grandfather, who by the way invented the one-horse plow for which he never received a penny because he died a year later, made wine. As did his grandfather and father before him.

So, while emotions didn’t grip him, he does go so far as to concede, “I was tickled,” upon learning he was going to be a winemaker.

Now 72, Mather is retired from his various previous professions as a teacher of psychology at various colleges and for the Department of Corrections and the Department of Mental Hygiene, as a bio-statistician, as a computer science teacher and as a tennis pro.

With the help of consultants Randle Johnson and Allen Price, who help him with his wine; and with the aid of his aunt’s son Ed Beard Jr. (that same said son), who farms his 14.5 acres of grapes, the David Fulton Winery -- on Fulton Lane in St. Helena -- produces 350 cases of just one wine, Petite Sirah. (The road, of course, was named for his great-grandpa.)

From the vineyard, some of which still exists from the 1940s and which was planted to St. George rootstock and is all head-pruned, Mather makes his $40 “Pet.”

Why Petite Sirah?

I’m still growing it and making it because it’s here, and to pull it out would be too expensive,” comes the pragmatic answer, from a decidedly sober-minded man.

But do you even like Petite Sirah?

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s got everything. It’s a real wine.”

However practical he may be, Mather also realized soon into his new venture that he would have to erect a new winery. So, he went about erecting one that resembled the old one, and set it down on the same footprint where his great-granddad had built his cellar. The building is permitted for 2,000 cases, but at the moment there are no plans to increase production.

As a state official, who suddenly found himself immersed in a wildly capital intensive private enterprise, Mather says he’s going to spend some money to improve the house on the site so that he and his wife Erma can live there fulltime instead of commuting from the small Sacramento town of Penryn.

But he insists, “I didn’t come here because I sold a dotcom and I didn’t come with a lot of money.”

Most of his fruit he explains goes to others such as to Markham Vineyards, which is in the final year of its contract, and to Dave Phinney, now the winemaker at Bennett Lane, and to Rob Fanucci. He says he gets $4,500 a ton for his Petit Sirah.

It’s quite a sum, one that David Fulton would be pleased to know that his great-grandson is able to command, especially when one considers that great-granddad was alleged to have said of his wine business, “All of life was not so grand, nor was all of life so sweet.”

Mather’s aunt Gladys however, by all accounts, was as sweet as could be. Gladys Mather Beard Whicels, as the postmaster of the Yountville Post Office, and who raised little Fulton, was once feted as Napa Valley Woman of the Year.

While he couldn’t bring himself to emote, upon learning that aunt Gladys had left him the property Mather nonetheless says, “I was unhappy about my aunt dying. She was a great, kind, loving woman.”

And as he walks through his ancestor’s vineyard he concludes, “It’s fun walking over the ground that you did as a kid.”

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